Lessons From a Pilgrimage — Remembering to Remember

Icon of Mary at the Tomb of the Mother of God at Gethsemane. A modern Orthodox saint, Elder Paisios, said, “The panagia (Virgin) looks a lot like the icon of the Panagia of Jerusalem. She is exactly the same. I have seen her many times and I don’t know of any other icon resembling her so much.” The icon was painted miraculously “without human hands,” appearing in the cell of an Orthodox nun named Tatiana in Jerusalem.

Many of you will be aware that we recently returned from Israel, where we led a group on pilgrimage. I was in Israel last year as well, though not as a tour leader but as a pilgrim.

Ishani and Aryavan were on that tour – Ishani is an American girl of Israeli-Jewish background, and even though she’s been a member of Ananda for years, she hadn’t really felt inclined to embrace the life of Jesus.

Because it was an Italian-sponsored tour, almost everyone in the group was Catholic, and there was a strong assumption of familiarity with and devotion to Jesus. And the upshot was that I spent a lot of time filling in the blanks for Ishani, telling her who Peter was, and whether John the Baptist was the same as John the Apostle, and how Jesus died, and so on.

Like Ishani, I was raised in a Jewish family, although we were cultural rather than religious. But once I took on the responsibility for starting an Ananda church and community here in Palo Alto thirty-three years ago, I had to spend a lot of time thinking about Christmas and Easter, and how Christ and Christianity fit within the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda.

Even so, there was always in my heart a passionate interest in Jesus, and I have no doubt that it was due to my karma. I’ve rarely had such a powerful feeling of personal connection with a place as when I was able to spend time in Israel on four separate visits in the last year.

I’m guessing it might also be partly because when I was very young my Zionist Jewish grandparents would always give me a birthday present of a little certificate that said “A tree has been planted for you in Israel.” And of course it’s exactly what I wanted as a six-year-old – a tree in Israel! But at any rate, when Shanti and I were there together last year, we both wondered where our trees were. So maybe there’s a small modern component to the deep connection I felt while I was there.

But the real power that I felt was the living presence of Jesus. I had a profound sense of his life as a very real and living story, and a deeply inspiring sense that new bonds are being formed between East and West.

Dual forces are competing for attention in the world today. One force is trying to fragment the planet into little hate groups that are saying terrible things about each other, and want to tear down everything that’s good. And there is a counter-force that is affirming that we are all children of God, and that we belong together.

Paramhansa Yogananda came to strengthen the forces of light – of love and unity. His missionwas vividly symbolized by his being born in India and spending the major portion of his life in America.

In our church, we affirm the growing bond between East and West each week in our Festival of Light, which tells us that Jesus appeared to the great master Babaji and asked him to give his followers in the West an inward religion that would be based on their own actual experience.

“High in the Himalayas, Jesus appeared to the great master Babaji,” the Festival says. I’ve repeated those words almost every Sunday for nearly forty years. And when I give them my full attention, I still wonder – what do they really mean?

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda tells us that Jesus and Babaji are working to bring East and West together in this age. And it might seem an outlandish claim, unless you understand the broader context.

The Autobiography is full of fascinating stories that can sound very strange to Western ears. We learn, for example, that Babaji is a deathless master who lives in the Himalayas, in a physical body that he keeps from aging by his yogic powers. And if we’re inclined to accept these things as true, the inescapable conclusion is that we are living in a reality that we can barely imagine, much less comprehend, and that we are but tiny droplets in the infinite ocean of God.

I used to say these things more glibly, as if I understood what they actually meant, but the more I live, the more I realize that even the smallest words we use to describe our spiritual aspirations are barely comprehensible to me – words such as unconditional love, perfect attunement, and absolute surrender.

And yet, every so often in our lives, something happens that causes our understanding to expand beyond the narrow confines of mere words and become a direct perception.

Pilgrimage has been a divine practice for as long as humans have inhabited the earth. And whereas pilgrimages were formerly undertaken as a religious austerity, where you might have to walk for months on end and risk your life to prove your devotion through great sacrifice, nowadays you can simply buy an airplane ticket and expect that the tour guide will meet you at the airport and whisk you off in an air-conditioned bus to a nice hotel.

But there is still a degree of austerity in pilgrimage, because we are committing ourselves to think only of God, and to visit places where we might, by His grace, have an actual perception of a higher reality.

In the former age of materialism, when East and West were severely divided in people’s minds, Jesus represented the western expression of the eternal truths of Sanaatan Dharma. Paramhansa Yogananda talked about how, in that lower age of Kali Yuga, the vibration of the planet as a whole became narrower, so that contradicting realities could not be held together, but had to be separated. And this is why Jesus took responsibility for the West and Babaji took responsibility for the East, so that they could separately guide the world through the dark age of materialism.

This is also why the West became institutionalized and primarily Christian, and India kept Sanaatan Dharma alive in its own way, through outward forms and rituals. And meanwhile, most of the esoteric truths of religion remained hidden during the dark ages, until the late nineteenth century when Lahiri Mahasaya brought Kriya Yoga back out into the world.

Now that the planet has entered a higher age of energy-awareness, we are better able to understand the oneness that unites these seemingly contradictory realities.

I remember saying to Swami, “Swamiji, we Westerners have had to embrace so many strange images from India – the God with the elephant head, and the woman with the garland of skulls and four arms. We’ve had to stretch our minds to take in all of this weird stuff, and don’t you think that the Indians could figure out Jesus?”

It seems a fairly small thing to ask. But of course, England was not exactly a friend to the Indian people, and Jesus’ name was invoked to justify many wrong things that were done to those whose skin was of a different color. And in the West our prejudice has been against what we imagined to be the paganism and superstition of the East.

Swamiji talked about visiting Rishikesh twenty years ago, and how he was walking through the city when it occurred to him that they could keep the streets a little cleaner. And then he thought, “Well, if you put all of your energy into having clean streets, then what you’ll have is clean streets.”

And what are you going to do with clean streets? It’s just clean streets, and ultimately who cares? Sri Yukteswar had a little frayed rug that he would sit on, and when Yogananda visited him in 1935 he said, “Master, I’ll buy you a new rug.” But Sri Yuktewar said, “Why?” As if to say, and then I’ll have a new rug, and what do I need with a new rug when I have infinite consciousness?

Who cares about rugs? Who cares about clean streets? This is the just way our minds work when we fill them with our own little narrow ideas. But it isn’t what takes us to God.

What takes us to God is the realization that it’s all a dream, and the only thing that matters is what I am inside myself. And then if I feel inspired to clean the streets, fine, and if I want a new rug, fine. But what alone is real is the direct perception of who and what I truly am.

I felt called by God to bring a large group of devotees from India to Israel, immediately after our pilgrimage from America, and to talk to them about Jesus. And it turned out to be a red-hot idea.

We didn’t just talk about Jesus; we walked and lived with Jesus. And I didn’t realize how drastically my consciousness had shifted until we got back to the airport and I simply couldn’t find my way to get on the plane. I was on the flight with Colleen Caldwell, one of our center leaders in New York City, and I’m not sure I could have found my way otherwise. But it became clear to me how much energy we waste on having clean streets, and on keeping the trivial aspects of our lives in order, while ignoring the true reason we are here.

By any measure, the life of Christ is filled with drama. When Swami was thinking of writing about Master, I remember how he lamented that Yogananda’s life had not been all that dramatic.

Dramatic things happened to him, of course, and there were many miracles that he describes in his autobiography. But he was born into a privileged family, and he met lots of saints as a young boy, and he came to America where he founded a work in Los Angeles, and then he died. And, in contrast, Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and it was a life of high drama from start to finish.

Swami remarked that in many ways Jesus’ teaching was his life, whereas Master’s teaching was his teaching. Of course, Master personified the teachings, but Jesus’ message was conveyed to a great extent by the events of his life and his response to them.

I remember Swami remarking to me once that Jesus’ life was “the greatest story ever told.” And I would sometimes say things that were less than brilliant. So I replied, “Well, that’s not a very original statement.” Because people have always called it “the greatest story ever told.” But Swami didn’t relate to me on that level. Like a little child, he turned to me and said, “Well, don’t you think it is?” And I had to stop and think. “Yes, actually, it is quite a story.”

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Master tells how Sri Yukteswar appeared in the flesh before him after his death, in a hotel room in Mumbai, which is a pretty remarkable story. But there’s something uniquely inspiring and symbolic in what happened to Christ. And when you’re in the Holy Land, climbing the steep steps to the top of the hill of Golgotha where he was crucified, you can get a powerful impression of the majesty of that long-ago story. And then you can put your hand down in a little hole and touch the rock where those events occurred.

Master visited the Holy Land in 1935, and he said that those places of pilgrimage are almost all authentic. And from what Swami said, I’ve understood that everything that matters is authentic.

Yogananda made a statement that is very important. “Anyplace a master has been, his vibrations remain for eternity.” Those places become portals to infinity. As Jesus said, “Where two or more of you are gathered in my name, there will I be in the midst of you.” And when Master spoke of the dawning of an age of increased unity, he said that when our thoughts are gathered in concentration, God will be there with us.

It’s an esoteric teaching, but what it implies is that we are never separated from God.

He is as close as our concentration on Him. But we are dense, restless, and distracted. And what pilgrimage accomplishes is that it cuts you out of the fabric of your life – it lifts you out of the fabric of your life and puts you somewhere else.

We said to our Indian pilgrims, “You have just one job, which is to put your belongings in your suitcase every morning and leave it in the hall, and for the rest of the time you only need to be remembering that you are in the presence of God.”

And why would we be concerned about anything else, if we are always remembering that God is with us? Of course, it’s easier when you’ve cut yourself out of the fabric of your life and you can just do those tasks that are unavoidable, and the rest of the time you can walk in the footsteps of the Divine.

Why do you all come here to Sunday service? Because it cuts you out of the fabric of your life, and for a period you can sit and look at the altar without distractions and be reminded of why you were born. And if you aren’t looking at the masters on the altar you can close your eyes and the images will still be there.

And then the words become an experience, and we no longer know Truth merely as a theory, but as a living point of contrast with the rest of our lives.

Altar, Ananda Sangha, Palo Alto, CA

Most of the time we don’t question what we’re doing because it seems so normal and good. Our minds are filled with the prospect of pleasure, or money, or the power that this world can give us, and it all feels warmly inviting. And maybe it’s the best we can do. But when something more touches us, the world begins to lose its attraction for us. And what attunement means is very simply to remember that “something more.”

Master warns us, “Many of you will leave the path, but it needn’t happen if you would stay in tune.”

In India, staying in tune is called smritti – divine remembrance. To stay in tune means to remember, and to very deliberately do those things that will help us not forget.

Many years ago I was a guest speaker at another teacher’s ashram. The teacher was getting ready to start a class on meditation, and he asked us to sit up straight in our chairs. And then he said, “The difficulty is that the chairs you are sitting on are part of the international conspiracy against proper sitting and breathing.” And it was true, because you couldn’t sit or breathe properly in those chairs.

We tested many chairs for our church, because we didn’t want them to be part of the international conspiracy. But there’s an international conspiracy that’s much worse. There’s a satanic cosmic conspiracy to make us forget. Fortunately, we have friends in high places who are working equally hard to help us remember. But we need to remind ourselves that we are living in the midst of those two very powerful forces, and that our own free will is also necessary if we want to be rescued.

Attunement means to be constantly making the choices that will help us remember. It really isn’t any more complicated than that. How am I spending my time? How am I spending my money? What is the atmosphere like in my home? What music am I listening to? How am I spending my free time?

It doesn’t mean that we can never relax and let down our guard. But cumulatively, how am I spending my time? What am I thinking about? Who are my friends? Where will I turn when I have difficulties? In whom do I rush to confide? And when two or more thoughts are gathered in my mind, do I remember that the Lord is with me, or do I lose myself in distractions? There is an international cosmic conspiracy to make you forget.

When we were in Israel, we stayed at the King Solomon Hotel, and we ate breakfast and dinner in the dining room. And it wasn’t long before I became aware that there was a constant sound in the room. I’m having a hard time calling it “music,” but it was an imitation of music, and occasionally there were sounds that had some vague relation to a melody, but mostly it was a repeated thumping. It sounded like somebody was banging on the wall, and it was playing in the background all the time.

Fortunately, Israelis are very exuberant, so there was enough noise in the room that you would only occasionally hear the endless thumping. But I sat there thinking, “Who thinks this is a good idea, that if there’s a fleeting moment of silence, let’s fill it with somebody banging on the wall?”

But this is actually the good news, because the effort that’s required to transcend that force is what makes us into saints.

We like to think that it would be better to be born in a higher age. But in those high yugas, where spiritual progress is easier, and where, as Swami put it, people like us are in charge, it’s also easy to let ourselves drift and become spiritually lazy. And then we might even leave the path because we don’t have to work hard to find that inner attunement by constantly asking, Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I here? What is real? Why am I anxious?

I had to figure out how to introduce the stories of Christ’s life to our little group of devotee friends from India. Because we had to do it all in the context of constantly moving about from here to there, and the weather and the schedule and the jetlag, with a hundred little things to consider.

I thought, “Let’s throw them in at the deep end. Let’s go straight to the best place here in Jerusalem, which is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified, and where his body was anointed and laid in the tomb, and where he was resurrected.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Golgotha

So most mornings we would walk over and spend a couple of hours in the church, and everything that happened to us came to be measured against Jesus’ crucifixion. “Oh, there’s nothing I like on the menu for dinner. Well, compare that to being crucified.” “Well, it’s a little cold today. Let’s compare that to having all your clothes taken off and being crucified.”

And because I’m a bit of an extremist, I thought it was terrific in a weird way, because it was really hard to find anything to worry about that you could compare to being crucified.

And that’s attunement. It’s constantly asking ourselves, which reality am I going to live in today?

Who do I want to be? Because our future is not determined by the great, dramatic moments of our lives. Our future is determined in this moment, day by day. Our better habits are formed right now. What am I doing? What am I comparing things to? What am I attuned to? And we have to make the decision to take back control of our lives.

We don’t always get to cut ourselves out of the fabric of our lives. We have to cook, we have to clean, we have to take care of the kids, we have to go to work, and we have to deal with our friends and coworkers.

We have to do all of these things, but they are all just the background noise. There will always be somebody pounding on the wall, and the real question is, who am I inside? And who do I want to become?

Pilgrimage is a great adventure, and it genuinely helps, but the problem with pilgrimage is that it’s here and then it’s over. It comes and goes, but God doesn’t. We come and go from God, but He is always with us, in each moment.

So it’s our choice. Who do we want to be? Who am I now? And who will I be tomorrow? Master says that the power of meditation is that it takes us from mere words into an actual experience, and then our own experience is what will hold us. Meditation is a means to a higher end, which is to remind us always to remember.

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on February 9, 2020.)

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